Jack Sparrow is many things-- one of the most iconic movie characters of the last decade, maybe the best role Johnny Depp will ever have, a presence who can make pretty much any movie feel like a sprightly adventure. But he's not a character to build a movie around, something Disney tried to some degree with the second two Pirates films and goes for full-throttle in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Though Johnny Depp is more than up for it, hopefully not only because the franchise has made him unimaginably rich, the movie never rises above anything but basic competence and a handful of surprises.
Given that it's really just another installment in a serial franchise, On Stranger Tides has refreshingly low stakes-- no talk of the end of the world or thousand-army battles, just a handful of characters, some good and some bad, chasing after a prize. As teased at the end of the third film the goal here is the Fountain of Youth, though it takes about an hour for things to get there; first we have to start off in London, watch Jack make another one of his daring escapes, hook him up with his old pirate flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz) who tosses him on board the Queen Anne's Revenge ship piloted by her father Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who-- a ha!-- is in search of the Fountain of Youth. So is King George (Richard Griffiths), as revealed just before that daring escape, and he's sent the pirate-turned-privateer Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) on the quest as well. The Spanish Armada is actually out there too, but the plot is so overstuffed the film doesn't really worry about them until the third act, so forget about them for now.
As you might expect from a band of pirates, every character on board Queen Anne's Revenge is more colorful than the next, and McShane and Cruz chew scenery right along with Depp and Rush to the point that Jack Sparrow sometimes seems to be the least cartoony of the bunch. On the flip side there's Sam Claflin as the righteous minister Philip, the movie's attempt at a Will Turner-like straight man who is somehow even duller and dopier than Orlando Bloom's character; Philip's romance with the kidnapped mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is shallow and slow, and feels like a waste of time even in a movie that seems in no hurry to get much of anywhere.
Director Rob Marshall, known previously for the musicals Chicago and Nine, actually does a pretty good job of lining up all the swashing and buckling, nicely informing us of Jack Sparrow's witty plans when we're supposed to follow them and keeping us in the dark when we're not. But any of his skill with choreography and comic timing is muddled both by the written-by-committee screenplay and especially the 3D, which unnecessarily darkens a film that largely takes place at night and adds nothing beyond a few gimmicky gags with swords.
With a plot as episodic as a treasure hunt, and just as emotionally rich, the action sequences are crucial to keep up audience interest, and they work OK for the most part. The highlight comes about an hour in, as Blackbeard and his men foolishly attack a pack of seductive yet vicious mermaids, but Jack's jaunty escape through the streets of London also has its moments (including a quick cameo I won't spoil), and the mutiny he leads on Blackbeard's ship is entertaining even before the bellowing McShane steps on deck to put the crew back in line. But other big moments, like the first swordfight between Jack and Angelica or the final showdown at the Fountain of Youth, suffer from awkward staging and general lack of spark. The clanging metal swords and Hans Zimmer's still-great score start to feel lulling rather than rousing when they accompany their eighth or ninth action scene, and the movie itself is so entirely low-stakes, such a lark, that when the novelty has worn off there's nothing left to be invested in at all. The movie wraps up agreeably enough, with threads left scattered to be picked up in the next one, but it's hard to imagine walking out of the theater begging for more where that came from.
It's probably coming anyway, though, as the only franchise based around a single actor and his original character spins onward, accepted by millions but maybe not capable of being beloved the way it was the first time around. On Stranger Tides is neither the best nor worst way to keep the Pirates of the Caribbean money flowing, but it always feels more like a franchised product than the rousing summer blockbuster it's trying to hard to be.